Mike Huckabee: A
With slow fundraising limiting his forward progress, and negative ads from the Club for Growth comparing him unfavorably to Bill Clinton, the former Arkansas governor surprised nearly everyone with a stealthy grassroots campaign that did not include a single bus. He placed second despite spending less than the going price for a low-end one-bedroom condo in Washington, D.C.
The best explanation anyone has offered so far for Huckabee’s improbable show of force is that Fair-Taxers came by the busload (Huckabee told his supporters to hitch a ride with them) and homeschoolers by the carload to provide hundreds of votes for Huckabee.
He doesn’t exactly become a top-tier candidate overnight for finishing a distant second, but Huckabee will get a boost in fundraising, and he’s already getting all kinds of free media. (Huckabee the jokester!! Huckabee the weight-loss guru!) He is now positioned to become a vice-presidential nominee if a northern candidate — Romney or Giuliani — takes the nomination.
(If a southerner — that is, Fred Thompson — wins out in the primaries, get good odds now and put your money on Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.)
Fair Tax Activists: A
Where the heck did these guys come from? They deny any coordination with Huckabee, but they appear to have been his cavalry nonetheless. Their idea of a National Retail Sales Tax — the bane of all tax lobbyists — has been around for some time, but the grassroots campaign’s omnipresence is a more recent development. A spokesman for FairTax.org, which co-sponsored the straw poll, tells me they have raised $5 million this year — more than some of the presidential candidates.
The Fair Tax mob seems to pop up whenever a major candidate touches the ground in an early primary state. They practically hijacked a June Republican-party fundraiser in Columbia, S.C., greeting Fred Thompson in greater numbers than his own supporters and befuddling him with tax questions. (Since then, Thompson has wisely chosen to embrace the Fair Tax. He is expected to make an announcement to that effect today).
It’s no coincidence that Huckabee and Tom Tancredo, both Fair Taxers, had the most impressive performances in the straw poll. Poll-goers were also spotted all over the place wearing Fair Tax stickers on their Brownback and Mitt Romney t-shirts, despite the fact that those candidates oppose the Fair Tax.
Sam Brownback: C
Brownback did pretty well at Ames, considering the resources he had (he spent $325,000 there) and his long-shot status. The problem is that he needed something really big in Iowa, and he didn’t get it. What’s worse, he let himself be eclipsed by the “other” social conservative, which harms his brand.
The favorable spin is that he tripled his own poll numbers there (five percent in a recent Iowa survey), but Ames was Brownback’s best and perhaps only chance to rise from obscurity to juggernaut status. That is why he put everything into his effort there. He missed his big chance, and there won’t be anything like it before the caucuses in January.
Brownback’s co-sponsorship of McCain-Kennedy cost him dearly in a state where there are few immigrants and yet illegal immigration is a surprisingly explosive issue. But Brownback’s real problem was strategic: he spent too much time knocking Romney and not enough taking Huckabee seriously.
Ron Paul: D
Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s backers raised expectations too much, and then he underperformed. Maybe he just didn’t want to spend the kind of money needed to make a big splash at Ames. Or maybe his nine-percent showing means that there really is no market for an antiwar conservative in a presidential race.
Duncan Hunter: F
This is just where Rep. Duncan Hunter wanted to be at Ames: He beat Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and came within just a few votes of frontrunner Rudy Giuliani!
Oh, wait a minute…They didn’t participate?
John Cox: F-
Cox has been bouncing around Washington since 2005 talking about his presidential campaign. The real wonder is that he has talked several small donors into giving him a combined $13,500.
Fred Thompson: D
Fred Thompson is supposed to be the candidate for conservatives who don’t buy into the Romney thing. If you believe that Huckabee is somehow helped by his performance over the weekend in Ames, then the picture has obviously become more complicated for Thompson.
Brownback did not do as well as he had to, but he also did not do so badly that he can’t keep playing right into January. That means that now Huckabee, Thompson, and Brownback are competing for the non-Romney conservative vote. Thompson’s niche becomes harder to find. Has he already waited too long to get in?
Rudy Giuliani: B
What? The coward who bailed out of Ames? You bet.
Sure, the crowds booed him as a no-show, but think of it this way: If Huckabee had come in fourth, he would be both broke and out of the race, narrowing down the number of conservative candidates. Now Huckabee is broke and very much in the race, with enough momentum to stick around until the caucus. So Fred Thompson, Huckabee and Brownback are competing with Romney for the conservative vote — a four-way split. Instead of helping conservatives coalesce around a single man, the Ames straw poll has further divided the base over whom to pick as their standard-bearer.
That benefits former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. By strategically chickening out on the Ames straw poll, then re-committing himself to compete in the caucuses, Giuliani is setting himself up to conquer a divided conservative field from its left. If enough conservative candidates stay in, he won’t even have to risk the general election by moving right and rallying the base.
Tom Tancredo: B
Anti-immigration (including legal immigration) Rep. Tom Tancredo (R., Colo.) won 14 percent. That is respectable — even surprisingly good. But it really just means that 14 percent of the most intensely active Republicans in Iowa care enough about immigration that they were willing to vote for Tom Tancredo.
Mitt Romney: B
Yeah, he won. So what? That’s par for the course when you’re the only top-tier candidate participating at Ames, and you spend somewhere between $400 and $800 per vote (depending on whether you count the television advertising).
Romney’s 32-percent take and 13-point margin of victory were a bit disappointing. On the other hand, Romney is the one candidate who can actually afford to keep spending this kind of money to win. He got his people to the polls in the morning, and then he brought another wave in the evening.
His win solidifies his status as the favorite for the Iowa caucuses in January. The question is whether his early-state strategy gives him enough momentum for the nomination, or he gets plowed under when balloting turns south from New Hampshire.
– David Freddoso is a reporter for National Review Online.